When Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors won the Asian Football Confederation Champions League last month, Kim Shin-wook was happy and relieved.
The towering striker knew he had just proved he is worth the money he is paid.
"After winning the AFC Champions League, I told our general manager Lee Chul-geun that I did perform like a 2 billion ($1.7 million) won player," Kim said at a media event at Jeonbuk's clubhouse in Wanju, North Jeolla Province, on Thursday.
Kim joined Jeonbuk from Ulsan Hyundai this year with a reported transfer fee of 2 billion won after capturing the scoring title in the top-tier K League Classic with 18 goals. However, he failed to perform well as he struggled to recover his form following his basic military training and a groin injury.
The 28-year-old, however, started to show his old form in the latter half of the season as he scored five of his seven goals at the K League Classic after August. In September, Kim's solid performance even caught the eyes of the South Korean national team head coach Uli Stielike and he wore the national team jersey for the first time since August 2015.
That's when Kim started to feel the weight of Jeonbuk.
"I realized that I have a big spotlight here with Jeonbuk," he said. "I played well with Ulsan in the past, but more people recognize my performance with Jeonbuk even if my good performance with them was just for a few months."
Kim said he still feels how big Jeonbuk are.
"Now I get more attention than when I claimed the scoring title with Ulsan," he said. "Those offers from China and Middle East are not a joke. But that doesn't mean I'm going to transfer to other club."
Kim said he always needs to be prepared when playing for Jeonbuk. With the four-time K League champions, Kim is just one of the players in a squad that includes the K League all-time leading scorer Lee Dong-gook, former Cardiff City midfielder Kim Bo-kyung and K League's highest paid foreign player Leonardo Rodrigues Pereira.
But Kim found that what especially makes Jeonbuk different than others is their winning mentality.
"Jeonbuk just don't like to lose," he said. "When the team lost, I was surprised that the players don't even talk to or smile at each other for days. I think that's why Jeonbuk are the Asian champions."
Kim said his teammates were eager to win the AFC Champions League from the beginning of the season, but for him, the domestic league title was more coveted than the continental title. Kim won the ACL with Ulsan in 2012.
Kim, who made his pro debut in 2009, has yet to win the K League championship. He had two runner-up finishes with Ulsan in 2011 and 2013. Jeonbuk failed to complete a three-peat this season after finishing runners-up behind FC Seoul.
"Everyone cried after the ACL final, but for me, it was easy," Kim said. "I found facing K League defenders is tougher than those in the ACL."
With their Asian crown, Jeonbuk will compete at the FIFA Club World Cup that kicks off next Thursday in Japan. The seven-team FIFA tournament features the winners of the continental club championships plus the host country's national champions.
Jeonbuk can set up a semifinal clash with Spanish giants Real Madrid if they beat Mexico's Club America from the North, Central America and Caribbean region in their opening match.
Kim said it's not going to be easy for Jeonbuk to collect a victory. He previously experienced an early exit at the Club World Cup in 2012 with Ulsan after the South Korean outfit fell 3-1 to Mexico's Monterrey.
"I told our players that we should not think about meeting Real Madrid already," he said. "Mexican clubs are not easy. They have better technique and are very strong in one-on-one situations."
Kim, however, said he does want to play against Real Madrid. He mentioned that he has been watching Karim Benzema's performance and imagining himself playing in Europe.
"I sometimes envy strikers playing in European leagues," he said. "They get to have high quality cross from the midfield. If I play in Europe, my style of play would be different."
Kim said he is becoming a better striker with Jeonbuk. He claimed that his heyday is just about to come and promised he will do better next year.
"With Ulsan, I learned how to finish off scoring in a counter attack, but with Jeonbuk I got to know how to make plays with attacking midfielders," he said. "We have so many talented midfielders and when I play with them, I have no worries. It's a privilege to play as a striker for the Asian champions."
Kim also hopes his experiences with Jeonbuk will help his national team career. The 196-centimeter tall target man has so far scored only three goals in 36 matches for South Korea.
"It's difficult for me to build up plays with national team players because I haven't played with them regularly," he said. "I'm more like helper in the national team, but it's important for me to score goals. With Jeonbuk, I'm learning how to do well in both categories." (Yonhap)